The image of a drowned Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach last week, has become a defining image of a refugee crisis widely regarded as the worst since the Second World War.
Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing wars in the Middle East and economic strife in Africa, for the most part trying to reach the countries of the European Union. But while Europe has been roundly criticized for the reaction to the situation, there is growing awareness that the crisis is a worldwide responsibility, and people even at the local level can help out.
Shauna Jimenez is with East Kootenay Friends of Burma, an organization that has been sponsoring and helping settle refugees in the area for 30 years. She calls the sudden attention on the crisis a reality check and a call to action.
“People are wondering,” Jimenez said. “They saw the pictures of little Alan and are asking ‘what can we do?'”
“One answer is, sponsor a refugee.”
The refugee individual or family to be sponsored doesn’t necessarily have to be Syrian, Jimenez added.
“There are 15 million bona fide refugees in the world [as designated by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees]. One million of these are Syrian — the number is growing every day.”
Jimenez says that “Fortress Europe” has been the term in the refugee community for a while now, describing that continents general reaction to refugees and migrants. But helping refugees is a global responsibility, she says.
“The spotlight is on the Syrians, but it’s also brought attention to an issue that’s been huge in my heart for 30 years.”
The East Kootenay Friends or Burma has been successfully welcoming people fleeing strife and oppression in other lands. Families and individuals from El Salvador, Cambodia, Burma, Eritrea and other countries now call the Cranbrook-Kimberley area home, and work and raise their families here.
This local success has been the result of the Friends of Burma’s own efforts and those of local Sponsorship Agreement Holders (SAHs).
However, in recent years, the federal ministry Citizen and Immigration Canada have adopted new policies and regulations that make it extremely difficult for groups at the local level to continue with this successful integration of refugees.
“Canada is a compassionate country, but in recent years the federal government has really changed the rules about who and how many we can sponsor,” Jimenez said.
Private Sponsoring of Refugees (PSR) is a program created in Canada to help in the Southeast Asian crisis of the late 1970s, which saw a mass exodus of Vietnamese — the so-called Boat People. Private sponsorship groups (SAHs) operate under the PSR program.
“We sponsored up to 40,000 refugees a year then (during the Vietnamese crisis) — the rates have varied over the last 30 years,” Jimenez said. “But the government (recently) has put limits on private sponsorship.
“In 2011, we were told we can no longer sponsor as many refugees as we want to sponsor. And it’s put limits on every group across the country.”
Jimenez said the relationship between Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the private SAHs should be a partnership — “like it was for 30 years. But now it’s become a dictatorship.
Jimenez says the term “Fortress Europe” has now been expanded to “Fortress Canada, based on these recent changes to Canadian policy.
“Refugee policy has been decimated in the last decade — but the attention on what’s been happening is going to bring about change.”
In the meantime, the East Kootenay Friends of Burma continues with it’s work as best it can.
Both the cities of Cranbrook and Kimberley, under former mayors Stetski and McRae, officially committed to being safe havens for refugees.
“The refugees that come here are super successful, and they stay because they’re safe and they want to be included,” Jimenez said.
“People really want to come here — and that’s what Canada is built on. We’re all descended from immigrants or refugees, unless we’re First Nations.”
Jimenez said many SAH’s haven’t been involved in refugee settlement since the Vietnamese diaspora. But the ongoing situation in Europe and the Middle East will likely spark people’s desire to help. And the Friends of Burma is there to assist.
”Anyone interested can go through their faith-based group,” Jimenez said. “But we can help if they phone and say ‘how do we do this? We forget.’ All people have to do is come up with the funds, and can get the sponsorship process started.”
Volunteers with the SAH and the Friends of Burma will then be responsible for the whole settlement process, from picking them up at the airport to helping them integrate into the community.
“We really need more volunteers — especially young people,” Jimenez added.
“Canadians are compassionate — we did it before and we can do it again. There are 15 million people asking for our help. Let’s pick one and get started.”
Jimenez says the East Kootenay Friends of Burma needs help with refugees trying to learn English in Kimberley. If you can volunteer to help read books/teach English with adults in Kimberley or help with homework of former refugee children, please call Shauna Jimenez at 250 422-3259.
For more information on the East Kootenay Friends of Burma, to volunteer, or to sponsor a refugee, contact Jimenez at the above phone number or email firstname.lastname@example.org.